Get thee behind me, Napster! 

A few weeks back, I was ruminating here about finding the lost treasures of jazz and the need to preserve some historically significant, but not necessarily popular, pieces of music that perhaps hadn't caught the fancies of the faceless men in suits who decide what performances to issue in new formats as each rung on the technological ladder is mounted.

At that time, the controversy over Napster, the Internet's music sharing utility, already had erupted and the case was headed for the American courts, where it now is in a kind of legal limbo. The courts after a few days of ordered shutdown of the online community, have allowed Napster to continue providing a forum for sharing music among its members without recompense to the artists whose music is being traded like baseball cards. There is surely more courtroom drama ahead, but that's where it stands as I write.

In my newspaper job, I followed the various developments with only a slight degree of interest, because the whole thing seemed like a no-brainer to me. All any of us really has to sell is our labor and the commodities that result from our labor. So I didn't think much about it and read the various dispatches from The Associated Press, Reuters and the Washington Post with only passing interest.

Then, as I skulked about my bedroom late one night and finally turned to the Internet for a little diversion, realized that I was sitting in front of several thousand dollars' worth of computer equipment that would allow me to look into the matter myself.

Well ...

Now, I feel like a thief.

I registered with Napster, downloaded the necessary software, and began searching with some trepidation. I felt like a cat burglar tiptoeing through some swank apartment and stuffing jewelry into a pillowcase. The late hour did nothing to ease the feeling.

My searches tended to be for esoteric items. Because Napster works like many news cooperatives such as The Associated Press -- i.e., its members are expected to contribute to the main product -- the selections tend to reflect more popular tastes and, in an ironic twist on my own fear about recording companies, what I found held little interest for me anyway.

But (and there's always a 'but') ...

Some Napster members apparently are of my vintage and have salted the mine with just enough nuggets so that I keep going back to find the odd, out-of-print track by an obscure rock 'n' roll artist, or a classical music performance by a particular performer. I haven't seen much jazz that isn't already available and I leave that alone.

Like a bad golfer who finds the sweet spot just once in 18 holes, it's enough to keep me going back, but I'm bugged by the feeling that I have to break the habit and that I am a thief.

I wrestled with myself and lost. I'm not proud of it. A lot of questions have come up and those of you who respect the sovereignty of the artist ought to think about this, too:

1) If you play in a band, have you always paid your dues to the local musicians' union?

2) If you play in a band and do cover tunes, do you make sure that any venue you gig in is paid up to ASCAP and BMI?

3) Have you ever taped another person's vinyl or CD for your own private use?

4) Have you ever gone to a concert or club and surreptitiously taped the performance?

The list is longer, but I began to feel as I pondered these questions that I was merely rationalizing my thievery. I have in my Napster account about 35 tunes dating from about 1956 through about 1978.
Napster has an argument that boils down to this: Word of mouth is the best advertising, and I believe that is certainly true. But the files I have are mostly hits from bygone days that one might find on the radio. And that makes me a little uncomfortable, because even though they aren't played much and most of them are out of print, somebody somewhere owns the rights. And I'm not paying.

Additionally, I'm not contributing to Napster's files either, a circumstance that feeds the notion that I'm only a taker, not a giver. And that's contrary to every instinct I have about music and musicians.
Perhaps the service Napster provides ultimately will be good for music. Perhaps it will function like a global living room where we can all sit down on some worldwide sofa, crack open some international beers and listening to samples of the world's music that will lead us to -- what? The record shop? Another site on the Internet? Some as-yet-unforeseen bit of technology that will enable us instantly to enjoy the greatest of arts without so much as a fare-thee-well?

And what of the musicians? There always will be music. Of that I am confident. But will there always be a means for a musician to make a living via recordings? Of that I am skeptical. And that makes me sad.
On the other hand, maybe the club scene will thrive in the wake of this development, and that will separate the men from the boys and the women from the girls where musical prowess is concerned. That would be a fine thing. But the musician's life will be harder than it already is. No more studio work; strictly live gigs. I think that would be good for music, especially for jazz, but will the sphere shrink?

Who knows?

In the meantime, I'm still walking down memory lane on some southern California beach because of Napster. But there's a stone in my sneaker.